As the last surviving crew member of classic films like The African Queen and The Third Man, Angela Allen is getting used to being the last woman standing. But standing she is, with clear eyes, a trim figure, and a fluorescent-orange pedicure as she plans her 90th birthday celebrations.
Allen’s career in movies spanned more than 50 years, and encompassed working on films ranging from the swoony passion of Ken Russell’s Women in Love to the indie cool of Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer. As a script supervisor, Allen was responsible for avoiding the kind of continuity errors gleefully pointed out on IMDb, plus keeping records of set design, cameras and lenses, and all takes of every scene to enable the director and editor to evaluate their options when editing. She’d also help other departments — makeup, lighting, props, and costume — with continuity issues to ensure a seamless suspension of disbelief.
But Allen is not given to living in the past. Instead, she still teaches, speaks at festivals, catches all the latest releases, and maintains firm opinions on a variety of subjects. Vulture caught up with the living legend to talk about her storied career — and, of course, engage in a little gossip about Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Humphrey Bogart.
How did you get into script supervising?
When I started in 1947, I realized the only job I would probably be able to get was as a secretary because I knew shorthand and typing. Eventually, I found a list of production companies and literally knocked on their doors, not something you could do today, and finally one said, “There’s a film going at the Korda studios. There might be a job down there.” I was very lucky.
Talk to me about the challenges of maintaining continuity.
You have to be there on the set all the time, as near to the director as possible. You have to watch every action, every shot, every take, listen to the dialogue, and if they make a mistake point it out or the reason why a line was cut. Then you type up a very, very detailed report for the editor. And you can’t ever leave the set. If you needed to go to the bathroom, you practically had to put your hand up and say, “Pause. Can I go?’
What was the key to your long working relationship with John Huston?
I did 14 films with John. I knew his methods. John liked a moving camera and he would never shoot what they call master scenes, in other words a wide-angle long shot, when, as he said, “All I’m ever going to use of a long shot is ten seconds.” So I could remind him when he needed extra close-ups or this or that, and I would say nine times out of ten we agreed.
So you were prepared to stand up to him?
Oh, I was never frightened to stand up to a director. But with John, we never had rows, not about angles or matching. One thing about John, he loved anybody who could make suggestions. Someone on the crew would say, “Ooh, hey, guv, I’ve got an idea,” and he’d listen, whether he used it or not. The crew adored him and would do anything for him. In the old days, when you started you were given an experienced crew, which is very sensible because they’re going to help you if it’s your first. Today the young ones want all their friends from college or film school and it’s not always the best idea because it’s the blind leading the blind.
The African Queen was quite a difficult shoot, wasn’t it?
We started in the middle of what was then the Belgian Congo. The camp was hacked out of the bush, there were no villages or shops or anything, and you all were living together 24 hours a day. And you were on a boat going up and down this river. But I was young so it was a wonderful adventure for me.
And everybody sort of pitched in together?
Katharine Hepburn didn’t have an assistant, she didn’t have anybody with her. Lauren Bacall was there but strictly as a wife – she used to come out and help with the lunch or bring things. Nobody had an entourage. We were living in very primitive conditions so we got on with it.
What was Hepburn like?
She could be quite bossy, but we all got used to it. One day when John wanted to pick up a shot from a sequence we had shot a couple of weeks before, I said, “You’re going to have to change and put on the other hat and gloves on.” “No,” she said, “I don’t.” We didn’t have Polaroids, so it was my notes against her opinion. And I have to say, Huston said – which many directors wouldn’t have done and certainly wouldn’t today – “Well, that’s Angela’s job, so go and change, Katie.” I had to sweat blood until we came back to England to find out if I was right or if I was wrong. But Kate was really quite caring of us all.
And Humphrey Bogart?
He was John’s friend. He and John were divine because they used to drink whiskey from bottles that were supposed to be filled with water but it turned out weren’t.
I didn’t go down with anything, but a major part of the crew did. Jack Cardiff, the cameraman, was very badly affected, and Katie, so we had three days where the few of us who were still standing used to go round the boat giving out pills.
Before that you worked with Carol Reed. How was his set different from Huston’s?
I started on the second unit of The Third Man and I was down the sewers for about three weeks. Carol was a workaholic. He directed the first and second units, every scene with an actor in it. Then he’d be in the editing room every day. He was very much the boss, and he could be quite sarcastic with certain crew members if he didn’t like them. But I got on with him very well.
Is it true that Marilyn Monroe gave you a hard time on The Misfits?
I didn’t know this at the beginning, but she had decided because I was the only other youngish woman on set that I was having an affair with Arthur [Miller, Monroe’s husband and the film’s scriptwriter]. Huston told me this — he knew it wasn’t true — but I just said, “Am I? Well, am I enjoying it?”
You could tell there was tension. Marilyn could never be wrong, Marilyn could never be guilty. I’ve said many times: on film she comes over wonderfully. One of my favorite films is Some Like It Hot, but we all know what she put Billy Wilder and her fellow actors through. And in fact Billy, who was a friend of John’s, said, “Oh my god, you don’t know what you’re in for.” He was quite right. Paula Strasberg, who everybody used to call “Black Bart” because she used to wear this black tent, totally dominated Marilyn, who could never be there on time or know her lines.
She was on the pills, uppers and downers. I didn’t know this until John said to me one day when she was being particularly difficult and we’d had to stop shooting, that she’d been rushed to the [stomach] pump twice already. We said at the end of The Misfits if she lived another year we’ll all be surprised. [Monroe died in 1962, a year and three months after the film’s release].
What was Huston’s relationship with Arthur Miller?
Any script John was working on, it was always, “It’s wrong, change it again, change it again,” until whoever wrote it was getting dizzy. In those days you didn’t have a computer, so I’d type 30 pages of script, get to the end, and John’s changing the beginning and I’d have to go back to the start again. Poor Arthur was having to rewrite every day and he used to say to me, “I can’t think of another idea.”
How was working on a hairy-chested production like the The Dirty Dozen?
Robert Aldrich was very disciplined, he was like a sergeant major, so he kept them all in order. There again was a director who had a totally different style to Huston. He was from the old-fashioned school where everything was covered from beginning to end by a master shot, everything was a static camera.
The stars like Lee Marvin and all the bigger boys were lovely. I never used to have to worry about continuity, but John Cassavetes and all the young ones were a nightmare. I’d go down the line getting them all correctly dressed and buttoned, but I’d button Cassavetes up correctly at No. 1 and by the time I got to No. 12, he’s opened them all again. And you never knew what would come out of Cassavetes’s mouth. It would always be a slight variation [on the script.]
It must have been tricky being one of the few women in a mostly male environment. How did you navigate that?
John was a wicked practical joker. And I used to get teased terribly because I was nearly always the youngest. One day at the end of Moulin Rouge, John and the boys had rigged it up that they were going to give a present to José Ferrer and I had to present it. I didn’t know what it was. Joe opened the present — I’m sure he was told what it was — and it was a very large penis. John was going, “How disgusting of you! How terrible! How could you be so vulgar?”
And he was in on it, of course?
He was the cause of it all. Every film they used to do something to me and I used to get so angry. I used to throw the script at him and leave the set. One day I heard him say to a friend, “I don’t get it. She hasn’t thrown the script at me this time.” I said, “No, I’ve discovered it’s supposedly a sign of affection.” “Bloody hell,” he said. “Ten years it’s taken you to find that out?” But I lived through it. It doesn’t happen today.
I believe you took on Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs at one point…?
We couldn’t be on Schedule D [the U.K. equivalent of a 1099 self-employment form], because in the eyes of HMRC [the U.K.’s IRS] you were a girl and a secretary as opposed to being your own boss.
So it was assumed if you were a woman you had to have a boss. How did you respond to that?
My accountant said, “You’ll have to fill out the regular employee form,” and I said, “No, I’m going to fight it.” So I got four or five of my colleagues and we had a meeting with the gentleman from HMRC. About four months later we hadn’t heard anything. I phoned up and he said, “No, we’ve refused it. But having met you, Miss Allen, I don’t think you’re going to accept this.” And I said, “No, I’m not.” In about another three weeks I got a call from HMRC saying, “Yes, you can stay on Schedule D.” But another accountant in the film industry — accountants were not on Schedule D at that point and also wanted to be — called up the HMRC man and said, “What did you do, fuck her?”
Did that attitude ever translate into your personal experience? Or were people fairly respectful to you on set?
Certainly remarks were made but I’m not one for #MeToo. I mean, you can say no to somebody. Though rape is something different. And in many cases, especially for actresses … if you didn’t comply, you didn’t get the part.
Did you feel there were many people who wanted to break out of those traditional female crew jobs — wardrobe, hair, continuity, and secretary?
I did. I would have liked to gone on to direct or produce, but when I broached the subject once to Huston, his reply was, “Oh, executives are a dime a dozen. You’re unique.” I said, “Yes, but I don’t get the same pay, do I?” I did direct a couple of second units for him, both times in Africa, but I never got a penny or a credit. There’s no point having regrets because you can’t turn the clock back.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.